Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Just Read: Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits!

This is credited to Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd; Spiegelman wrote an essay for the New Yorker from which the text of this book was taken. (The changes from the magazine text to the book text appear to be minor.) Kidd, I believe, did the book design and possibly dug out and got the rights for the comics reprints included here.

So this is a weird book -- one part short biography of Jack Cole, one part appreciation of Plastic Man, and one part reprint collection. I'll take each part in turn.

As a biography, it's very short, but OK for what it is. There's probably a lot more of Cole's life to be teased out, but Spiegelman hits the high points, and tells us everything we really need to know.

Spiegelman is not very critical when it comes to Cole and Plas; he loves 'em, and wants us to know it. He is good at getting that enthusiasm across, but not always the reason for the enthusiasm. Sure, Plas is an interesting character, but so were dozens of others. Spiegelman also seems mostly interested in how Plas allowed Cole to design interesting pages, which is of primary interest only to other comics artists.

Lastly, the reprints here are aggressively "timely" (pun semi-intended, since they're mostly Quality comics); blown up to show huge dots, shot straight from yellowing newsprint, and otherwise very much artifacts of a vanished past rather than artworks being reproduced. I hated this in Kidd's Peanuts book, and I hate it here -- I know art directors might like the texture of it, but it uses the old stories and art as fodder for someone else's modern "artistic" design, rather than showing them as works in their own right. For a book that's supposedly about Jack Cole, I want Jack Cole, and not Chip Kidd's interpretation of him. Kidd even adds a dozen or so collage pages, mostly at the end, which are pure self-indulgence. My kid brother did a cut-and-paste "cutting edge" magazine in his high school days; these pages are much the same thing done with professional tools, and even less defensible.

The stories themselves -- two full-length Plas stories, one about Woozy Winks, and a later crime comic with a famous "injury to the eye" panel -- are OK, but I'd rather have a more concentrated dose of Plas, with a less distracting design. There are also some later Playboy cartoons, and lots of other stuff shoved in every which way (this is a heavily, heavily designed book, and can be hard to read because of it).

All in all, I'd have prefered a more sedate, down-to-earth package of the same stuff. The bells and whistles only distract from the content, which is what design should never do.

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